Yesterday was a big day. I was still basking in the glory of seeing my new book, Thirty-Eight: the Hurricane That Transformed New England for the first time, when I discovered that my basement was flooded.
In a largely snowless winter, instead we’ve been getting rain. Nearly an inch of rain fell overnight and couldn’t be absorbed by the frozen ground so it found a way into the basement. Freakish weather is becoming the norm for us. Very unsettling.
But imagine how unsettled you would have been on the afternoon and evening of September 21, 1938. A tremendous hurricane blasted into New England totally unannounced.
Unannounced, but more to the point, unthinkable. Not a single person living in New England had ever experienced a major hurricane before. Not even people on the coast. The Boston Globe the next day called it “New England’s first hurricane.”
How could this be? For generations the only tropical storm impact to New England had been late stage remnants of storms whose power had already been spent. People did not believe that hurricanes came this far north.
This one came farther north and farther inland than any in recorded history. Its track took it through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont before it fizzled out in Quebec and Ontario. En route, it uprooted forests in each of the New England states.
Weather events of this magnitude have immediate and lasting consequences. When the trees fell in these forests, people were there to hear them. And as a consequence, the forces of the New Deal—the CCC and the WPA under the supervision of the U.S. Forest Service—sprang into action. Because of a grave concern over the potential for fire, these agencies embarked on a cleanup operation, gathering and safely burning much of the brush. Meanwhile, the all-but-dead forest products industry geared up to salvage 2.8 billion board feet of logs, the equivalent of five years of harvest.
In this way, the region’s worst weather event was followed by the nation’s largest logging job. This ecological upheaval took place in the social and economic context of a nation struggling to emerge from the Great Depression while the drumbeats of war were beating more insistently. Ultimately, much of the salvaged lumber was used for shipping materiel in support of the war effort.
How this all came about is quite a story. Read about it in Thirty-Eight.